Leading Article: Frank words needed to stem the tide of teenage pregnancies

SHOULD TEENAGERS be discouraged from having sex altogether, or should they be told how to avoid getting pregnant? That is what the producers of daytime television shows call a "talking-point"; it allows people to express themselves with much opinion and little thought. But it is interesting that this subject was also discussed by a meeting of ministers as they prepared today's report from the Prime Minister's Social Exclusion Unit.

As we reported last week, David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, said that school nurses would be given the power to prescribe contraceptives "over my dead body". Tony Blair supported him, and the idea was dropped. But the document published today rightly adopts a "third way" between the two absolutist positions. It proposes more education about the hard work and responsibility of having children and suggests that contraception should be readily available, without appearing to promote under-age sex. What is most encouraging about today's report is that the Government has shaken off the reactionaries' argument that information equals endorsement. Tessa Jowell writes (on page 4): "If teenagers know the facts and the real consequences, they are much more likely to make the right decisions."

The Government's after-care service for young lone mothers will tread a similar fine line between disapproval and engagement. The scale of the moral panic over young women having babies to obtain a council home is out of all proportion to the small numbers involved, and yet it is true that, for too many young women, having a baby is the most obvious route to any sense of self-worth.

The controversy over the word "hostel" is likely to distract attention from what really matters. There is no point in a simply punitive view of lone parenthood - especially as it tends to focus on mothers rather than fathers. But to have good-quality "foyer"-style hostels, in which under-age mothers are given support with child care, education and work, as one of the options available - which is all that today's document seems to propose - must be sensible.

Of course, it is important that young lone mothers - and their children - are kept in what Mr Blair calls "mainstream" society, rather than becoming a self-perpetuating underclass. But the radical and important stuff lies in tackling the causes of teenage pregnancy rather than the products of it.

The causes of Britain's high teenage pregnancy rate are complex, but it seems that most other countries either have less liberal social values, like France, or more and better sex education, like the Netherlands. In Britain we have the worst combination: liberal values plus ignorance. Today's report should be judged by the extent to which it will promote real sex education, in the widest sense.

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